Cuckoo for Cookbooks

Merrily comes clean about her lifelong addiction to cookbooks, and provides an informed list of recommended reading

Have you ever ruined—as in rendered inedible—a perfectly good, thirty-four dollar piece of meat? On a recent Sunday in my kitchen, I did. I was trying out a cookbook, Genius Recipes, newly arrived on my doorstep via Amazon Prime. I had high expectations for this book. I loved everything about it—the clever recipe names, the conversational prose, and, most importantly, that it came from a trusted source, the venerable cooking blog Food 52. That day, in fact, I tried out three of the book’s recipes—Nach Waxman’s Beef Brisket, Broccoli Cooked Forever, and No-Knead Bread—and came out zero for three.

I was hoping to find great dinner-party recipes I could recommend to you, and I suppose it’s fortunate we were not having anyone over for dinner that night. But even if we had, we would have opened another bottle of wine, ordered in pizza, and had a good story for years to come about how the brisket was as tough as boot leather, the broccoli mushy and oily, the bread unservably burned, Maybe I tried the only three clunkers in the book. But I am disappointed in it and cannot recommend it.

I have a jones

I have hundreds of cookbooks stashed all over the house, many of which I’ve never used to produce a single recipe. Cookbooks are my relaxation, my escape, my insomnia cure. I use a Kindle for all other book reading, but not my cookbooks. I have exactly one e-cookbook and I hate it. I need the glossy, soothing pages of my cookbooks. And I will never stop buying them.

A person’s cookbook collection reveals a lot about them. If you invite me over, I can promise you I will gravitate to your cookbook shelf and I will feel I know you a little better after seeing what books you have and which look well-used. Here are my top go-to cookbooks, and some of my favorite recipes within them.

First, The Contessa

If you are a cook who intends to entertain, there are no better cookbooks than the ten in Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa series. Garten was the first author to truly understand what we want in a cookbook: not a jillion recipes in each section, necessarily, but a handful of very clearly explained, gorgeously photographed, no-fail dishes. The filet of beef with Gorgonzola sauce in Barefoot Contessa Parties is a trusted standby, but you have to roast the filet exactly as she says, no messing around. I have made her potato-fennel gratin, from the same book, so many times I have the recipe memorized. Her cauliflower and celery-root soup from Make It Ahead is my new favorite cold-weather recipe. And don’t get me started again on her Outrageous Brownies from her first book, The Barefoot Contessa.

A league of our own

The Junior League—or as many husbands affectionately called it when I was active, The Junior Plague—is famous for the regionally themed cookbooks produced by its local chapters. When Beyond Parsley, the cookbook of the Kansas City, Mo. Junior League, was published in 1984, it set a whole new standard for its genre, drawing national acclaim and landing the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award. Thirty-three years later, it’s still au courant, loaded with trustworthy recipes. My copy of BP is practically a bio-hazard, spattered and dog-eared, with notes beside many of the recipes.

Its sequel, Above & Beyond Parsley, is also excellent, but I am biased, having served as its production and design chair, and a proud member of the soup-testing committee. Which reminds me to tell you that one reason Junior League cookbooks are so reliable is that all the recipes in them are tested a minimum of three times.

Sadly, you can’t find either book in bookstores any more, but both are available on Amazon.com.

Food snobs, skip this paragraph. The rest of you, if you can ever get your hands on Sassafrass! or Simply Simpatico, by the Junior Leagues of Springfield, Missouri, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, respectively, snatch them up. They ain’t pretty, but they’re keepers, loaded with stellar canned-soup recipes.

A new fave

I adore everything Anthony Bourdain writes because he makes me laugh out loud. His latest cookbook, Appetites, offers the usual highly amusing, expletive-loaded rants, along with bordering-on-grotesque photos—and solid recipes for home-style favorites such as macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, tuna salad and roast chicken. You’ll also find recipes for Korean Army Stew (Spam is an ingredient; I dare you to make it for a dinner party) and a Macau-style pork-chop sandwich. Worth the price of the book is this one nugget of profound wisdom from his chapter on entertaining: always keep some pigs-in-the-blankets (such as what they have in the freezer case at Costco and Sam’s Club) in your freezer. People go crazy for them.

Two ethnic classics

For me, it’s much less arduous to learn about a country from reading a book about its cuisine than to actually bestir myself to go there. (Kidding!) Read Marcella Hazan’s introduction to her timeless Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and you will have learned a lot about Italy and its regions. Besides offering up extremely coherent, workable recipes, this book is endlessly engaging. A Farm Wife’s Pear Tart is my favorite winter dinner-party dessert.

What Marcella Hazan did for Italian cooking, Julie Sahni did for Indian cuisine in her Classic Indian Cooking, the definitive work on the subject. It is a joy to cook from and a fascination to read. If you are cooking for a vegetarian, this book is a treasure trove. My copy falls open by itself to the lentils section.

For food-writing fanciers

My favorite sub-genre of cookbooks is collections of food essays, with a recipe or two at the end of each essay. I have read and reread Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer In the Kitchen and More Home Cooking, as I have James Beard on Food, Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, and Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires and My Food Year. All are equal parts memoir and cookbook, with fabulous recipes.

Here’s an easy way to keep up with what’s hot in the international food world. Every year Holly Hughes publishes an excellent anthology called Best Food Writing. Since these are not cookbooks, I download them to my Kindle. (Several years ago, I was thrilled to see Hughes featured a piece from my favorite local food writer, Jill Wendholt Silva, food editor of the Kansas City Star.) Best Food Writing 2016 gives us a wonderful essay, “Dinner Party Diaries” by the novelist Andrew Sean Greer. If you download the book, you can read it tonight.

Get the Most Bang for Your Cookbook Buck

EE_cookbooks_Mar17There are a lot of bad cookbooks out there with recipes that just don’t work. Before you buy a cookbook, follow these tips.

•   Read the table of contents. The chapter topics give you a clue about how useful the book will be to you.

•   Check reviews. Trusted reviewers include major news organizations, other cookbook authors and book-list organizations.

•   Look at the recipe ingredients. If the recipes call for lots of hard-to-find ingredients, it might not be the book for you.

•   Examine the simplest recipes. How the author treats them will speak volumes about their attention to detail. Their instructions should be as full and complete as they are for the more complicated dishes.

•   Glance at the index. Again, it’s all about the details. If the index is useful and carefully organized, the book probably will be, too.

Have questions about entertaining? Merrily would love to answer them. Email them to her at essentialentertaining@spaceskc.com. Follow Merrily on Twitter